Vladimir Lenin used to say that there’s no all-inclusive democracy that serves all people and all classes equally. Democracy is a class affair, serving whichever class has state power. Talking of democracy in the abstract, of pure democracy, or democracy above class, is a mistake.
This follows a Marxist critique of capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracies are, according to some Marxists, democracies for the capitalist class, the fraction of the one percent that includes major investors, titans of finance and captains of industry who derive their income from the exploitation of others’ labor (which is to say through rents, profits and interest.)
This doesn’t mean that members of this elite control the outcomes of elections, but they do exercise outsize influence over them.
For example, its members own, and have control over most of the media, and hence are in a position to shape public opinion.
There is a sense too in which they own and have control over most of the politicians. By virtue of their great wealth, they are the major contributors to political campaigns. What’s more, they’re able to entice politicians to act in their interests by promising them lucrative jobs when their careers in politics are over.
They’re also able to extort electoral outcomes by stirring up fears that voting for parties that are against their interests will cost people their jobs. This is done by threatening to move investments to friendlier jurisdictions if a party is elected that is against their interests.
Also, people who work for private businesses—a substantial part of the electorate in capitalist democracies–may fear that openly campaigning for anti-capitalist parties will put their jobs at risk. As a consequence, they’re cowed into remaining on the political sidelines.
Additionally, the superrich can foster allegiance to parties of private property by using their vast wealth to buy the hearts and minds of voters.
And then there’s the ultimate assurance that the interests of the economic elite will be safeguarded against the danger of their parties losing an election: the intervention of the military.
For all these reasons, elections in capitalist democracies—while they may be deemed free—are heavily stacked in favor of the class of financiers and owners of major enterprises who use their dominant economic positions to influence the outcomes.
Despite this, the view that democracies are always democracies for the class in power is not widely held. And the analysis remains, for the most part, foreign to large parts of the organized left, as well. Instead, the dominant view is that as long as there are two or more parties to choose from, and the state remains neutral, elections will be fair and independent of class.
Do capitalists believe this nonsense? Not at all. Always conscious of themselves as a class and acutely aware of their position and power, captains of industry and titans of finance recognize that if they are knocked from their perch at the top of society, the chances that their parties will prevail in electoral contests are vanishingly small. In a democracy for the many—what in Marxist terms might be called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—they haven’t a chance.
To make my point, I cite Jose de Cordoba’s February 14 Wall Street Journal article on Venezuela’s general election, scheduled for later this year. Cordoba presents a class conscious analysis to declare that the upcoming election will be free but unfair, unfair because the electoral advantages normally enjoyed by the top one percent are, this time, all on the side of the bottom 99 percent.
These advantages derive from the control that the many of Venezuela have over state-owned enterprises, state-owned media and the military, through their representative Hugo Chavez and the United Socialist Party he leads.
Cordoba notes that control of the state gives Chavez “many advantages over Mr. Capriles,” the scion of a wealthy family who will contest the presidency in October on behalf of the united opposition—and who, if elected, will reverse Chavez’s majority-friendly reforms in favor of restoring ownership of the economy and control of the state to the privileged few. According to the Wall Street Journal reporter these advantages include:
• “Control over most mass media.”
• “Access to billions of dollars…to buy the hearts and minds of poor voters.”
• Stirring “the widely held fears” that a vote for the opposition will cost public servants their jobs.
• The fears of employees of state-owned enterprises that “they would lose their jobs if they were identified as opposition voters.”
• Intervention “in the elections (by the military) if the president were in danger of losing.”
Part of this is speculative. We don’t know if the military would intervene to rescue a failing Chavez election campaign. But significantly, these are the very same advantages that the capitalist class enjoys in most capitalist democracies. Cordoba, as far as I know, has never complained about the owners of capital enjoying parallel advantages in other elections, so why complain about the other side enjoying the same advantages now?
The reason is because democracy, as it operates in capitalist countries, is supposed to benefit the capitalist class. It shouldn’t act in the interests of the many–and usually doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. Capitalist democracy didn’t prevent Chavez from being elected president. Still, a coup did follow.
Once the media and schools, the economy, and the military are brought under public control by a party whose allegiances lie with the exploited many against the exploiting few, democracy becomes authentic, and is no longer a means for the superrich to use their money power to buy the outcome.
All the same, it may seem to those in whom the idea has been instilled that democracy is above class that Chavez’s advantages are unfair. But consider the alternatives.
If not public control over the media, then private control by the wealthiest citizens, who can shape public opinion to suit their interests.
If not public control of enterprises, then an effective dictatorship of private owners over the economic (and therefore also political) lives of the many.
If not a military politicized to safeguard the interests of the exploited many against the exploiting few, then a military politicized to safeguard the interests of the exploiters.
The Wall Street Journal isn’t agitated because October’s election in Venezuela won’t be an exercise in democracy in the abstract. The newspaper and the class that owns it and on whose behalf it speaks is agitated because democracy in Venezuela is becoming what it was always meant to be: rule by the many—not a democracy of the few.